I don't make a habit of reading press releases or studying menus prior to reviewing, partly in the belief this leads to fresher, less studied perceptions that are closer to those of a typical diner, and partly because of a lifelong aversion to research. Every now and then, though, I do take a sneak preview of the menu, as was the case with Elia, a new Mediterranean restaurant in Bal Harbour. I even went so far as to pick out prospective dishes: phyllo dough baked with medjool dates and halloumi and kefalotyri cheeses. Roasted Spanish cod. Rabbit "stifado" stew. And an especially tempting coriander-crusted duck breast with tricolor couscous and pomegranate demi-glace.
So after we arrived at Elia and were seated outdoors in comfortably cushioned rattan chairs, I opened the menu with the smug confidence of already knowing what was inside. But what was inside was a radically abridged version of that which I had seen, this menu containing the standard Greek restaurant fare of meze platters and kebabs, along with some pastas and a few vaguely Mediterranean entrées, like tuna over ratatouille and salmon wrapped in grape leaves. Every one of my designated dishes was gone.
Maybe the foods that had seemed so appealing to me didn't sell with the finicky Bal Harbour crowd, in which case I certainly can't blame Elia for removing them. Still, in light of this restaurant team comprising an executive chef (Dimitri Karagiannis), two consulting chefs (Sergio Mei of Milan's Four Seasons Hotel and Bernard le Prince of Fouquet's in France), and a general manager, Juan Rochaix, who formerly owned Las Puertas in Coral Gables, this mundane Mediterranean menu stands as something of a monument to underachievement.
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Elia's décor is similar to previous incarnations -- rich woods, French doors, and sand-colored floor tiles still intact. Silk, onion-shaped lanterns provide warmly diffused lighting for 75 indoor seats, the outdoor tables a mirrored reflection of those across the way at Carpaccio -- except with fewer people. Maybe that's why, as we walked by the restaurant before dining, Elia's host approached us with an invitation to give the place a try. That's one way to attract diners, but I prefer being lured by scintillating scents and the sight of bright, inviting repasts.
Elia's cuisine isn't bad, just boring. Appetizer options include four types of oyster from the raw bar, steamed mussels, buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, goat cheese over mesclun greens, and a salad of arugula with multiple shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano and much fewer shavings of raw, attractively crunchy, unseasoned artichoke bottom dressed in lemon juice and olive oil. There was no pepper mill on the table, and the waiter never came by to offer any.
Elia's meze platter pleased those at our table, particularly delicate fillets of pickled white anchovies and tenderly charred tentacles of octopus. Other components included pita toasts, marinated feta cheese, an unfishy tarama spread, phyllo-wrapped spinach pies, three olives, and a paprika-heavy hummus. Greek salad was good as well, one solid wedge of feta atop tomatoes, red onion, red peppers, and cucumbers. And too many chefs apparently didn't spoil the egg, lemon, and chicken broth of a superior avgolemono soup, this version favoring orzo over rice.
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Pastas offer as wide a variety as five choices can -- tagliatelli with porcinis and truffle oil, penne with sausage and broccoli rabe, linguine with lobster, vegetable cannelloni, and pastily textured spinach gnocchi with Gorgonzola sauce, toasted walnuts, and a clump of cold, diced tomatoes -- for color, I suppose.
Seven entrées likewise contain a decent swatch of meat, fish, and poultry to select from, including roast chicken, beef tenderloin, and choice of swordfish or lamb kebabs -- the latter of which, with its five flabby cubes of mildly marinated meat, splatter of tzatziki, and mushy, balsamic-soaked grilled vegetables on the side, compared unfavorably with those found at falafel stands.
Osso bucco "youvetsi style" didn't impress much either, as after removing an abundance of gristle and fat there wasn't much edible meat left over; orzo underneath was heavily imbued with one-dimensional meaty-Parmesan flavor. A succulent rectangle of grilled salmon wrapped in grape leaves was better, though parsley was the only herb in "herbed Italian couscous" on the side.
Beef tenderloin and osso bucco are, at $24, the most expensive items on a reasonably priced menu -- many entrées cost less than $20. Service is similarly cut-rate, the staff slow at attending to tasks such as removing plates and filling water glasses, and still stumped by the few remaining Greek words on the menu. On one weekend occasion, when overflow from Carpaccio was helping to fill Elia's seats, our waiter brought us the check before coffee and desserts arrived -- an ungracious way of pressuring us to hurry and vacate. I took my sweet time with a thick, moist, pistachio-laden baklava, one of the only menu items to rise above ordinary -- though, not surprisingly, an accompaniment of "mastiha" ice cream turned out to be vanilla.